With a history dating back to 1907, the Isle of Man TT stands alone as the most exciting event in motorsports. But beyond the racing, it is the total, immersive nature of the fortnight that makes the TT a singular experience. There is nothing virtual about the reality of being on the Isle of Man for the TT.
I’m on my way to this magical rock in the Irish Sea for the ninth time, and between race watching, serving as a TT Marshal, riding the island’s roads, and perhaps, if time permits, visiting a pub or twelve, I’ll again be reporting from the IoM for Motorcycle.com.
So, with practice week kicking off today, and the races starting on Saturday, June 4th, here are the top five TT storylines to follow over the next two weeks:
Will There Be A Sub- 17 Minute Lap?
Each TT lap covers nearly 38 miles on bumpy roads, with over 220 turns, all lined with stone walls, homes, burger vans, disoriented sheep, and spectators perched on hedges. And there’s a friggin’ mountain. NASA engineers have nothing on TT race bike suspension crews.
Last year, I wondered if we were close to ‘peak speed’ for the TT. Apparently not. The Morecambe Missile, John McGuinness, who at 43 years of age was whispered to be on the downside of his magnificent career, astonished the TT cognoscenti when, on the sixth and final lap of the Senior TT, he set a new record average speed of 132.701-mph, lapping the circuit in 17:03.5 seconds. As John himself said, ‘It’s good to be fast, fat and old.’
Every rider in the top ten routinely lapped in excess of 130 mph in 2015, and Bruce Anstey, Guy Martin, Michael Dunlop and Steve Hillier all blasted 132-mph circuits.
Can another three and one half seconds be scrubbed off the lap record in 2016? Well, if you combine record times for each of the 6 individual course sectors, a ‘perfect lap’ would yield a speed of over 133 mph and a lap time of 16 minutes and 55 seconds. If conditions are right, I say yes, we’ll see a sub- 17 second lap at TT 2016.
Will There Be A Personality Crisis?
Guy Martin, arguably the TT’s only mainstream star, known by millions for his TV work, mutton chops, and interesting take on the English language, will not be at this year’s meet. Instead, he’s competing in the Tour Divide, an annual ultra-distance mountain bike race that runs the length of the Rocky Mountains. Martin posted on his Facebook page, “All I’ve really done since I was 18…is race motorbikes, and my brain needs something else.”
Well, his brain may need that, but the TT does not. Martin is a huge star, in his prime at 34, and while he has never won a TT, he is the most popular rider of all. His voice, personality and mercurial nature will be missed. There are other riders who are popular and telegenic, and who represent the sport with dignity and valor, but Guy is Guy. Lets hope he gets this push bike thing out of his system right quick.
Who’s Riding What And For Whom?
While MotoGP racers routinely participate in the high stakes kabuki ritual of switching race teams and manufacturers, it is a deliberate process, with millions of dollars and legacies at stake. Not so with TT riders.
When these grizzled blokes with blue-collar day jobs switch teams, it’s not for big bank – road racing isn’t about the Tubmans. A bad feeling for the race bike, or a chance meeting down at the pub with a rival team owner offering a few more quid, can lead to a quick change. And it can happen in the middle of a race meet, like at TT 2015 when Michael Dunlop quit Milwaukee Yamaha during practice week, and jumped on the Buildbase BMW for the Superbike and Senior TT races.
Expect more intrigue at TT 2016. Ian Hutchinson, who leapt from MV Agusta to the TTC Yamaha squad one day before the 2015 races, has made another switch to TAS Racing BMW this year. The Bingley Bullet won three TT races in 2015, a remarkable comeback from his gruesome 2010 racing injuries.
Honda of Europe has shaken up their two teams, with John McGuinness and Steve Mercer riding with Jackson Honda Racing, and Bruce Anstey joining Conor Cummins at the Valvoline Racing by Padgett‘s team. But the big news there is that 10-time TT winner Anstey will race the Honda RC213V-S MotoGP-based production bike in the Superbike and Senior race. Mind blown.
And as if having a MotoGP-derived V-4 weapon on the course isn’t enough, Ian Lougher will race the Suter MMX 500cc two-stroke at the TT. Imagine the sound of this thing barreling down Bray Hill at 175 mph.
Even the Sidecar guys are in on the act. TT and World Sidecar Champions Klaus Klaffenböck and Tim Reeves have joined forces to create a supergroup, with Klaffi supplying Reeves and his passenger Patrick Farrance with engines and technical support, thus providing a serious challenge to the leading outfits of the Birchall brothers, Dave Molyneux and John Holden. Sidecar racing is cool and deserves your attention.
So with some top riders switching teams, scores to settle, and a two-stroke out harassing a MotoGP V-4 and the literbikes, watch for some real drama in the paddock, in the pubs, and on the Mountain Course.
Where is the next generation of TT stars?
It is said that it takes 10 years to master the Mountain Course, so new riders must be constantly developed and groomed. And 2016 is a pivotal year on several fronts. Sadly, it has been a horrific few months for road racing as two of the sport’s most promising young lights have been extinguished.
Manx Grand Prix Senior race winner in 2015, Malachi Mitchell-Thomas, succumbed after crashing at the North West 200 a few weeks ago. He was only 20, and poised to make his TT debut. And 2015 Junior Manx Grand Prix winner Billy Redmayne died after an accident at Scarborough’s Oliver’s Mount circuit in April.
Despite these terrible losses, new riders are still magnetized to the TT. High profile newcomers for 2016 include former WSB rider Alex Polita of Italy, and British Supersport regular Ben Wilson. Barry Furber, Paul Smyth and Rob Livesey will move up from the amateur Manx Grand Prix.
Up and coming racers have made their mark at the TT over the last few years and are poised to become leaders. James Hillier, 26, winner of the Newcomers Trophy in 2008, won the 2013 Lightweight TT, and at 131 mph, is the fifth fastest rider in TT history. Lee Johnston, 26, made his Mountain Circuit debut in 2012, and took his first Superstock TT podium in 2015. Irish Supersport Road Race Champion and last year’s Newcomers Trophy winner Derek McGee is in the mix. Also, Americans Brandon Cretu and Mark Miller, while hardly newcomers, have a lot of years ahead of them, are continually improving, and attract a great deal of attention representing the US each year at the TT.
The current generation of superstars will be challenged by young Turks looking to make their mark on TT history. Look for one of these blokes to snatch a win from the big boys at TT 2016.
What’s the future of the TT?
Last year around 43,000 people visited the Isle of Man during the TT fortnight, generating roughly $40 million for the island nation’s economy. That’s big, and it needs to get bigger for the TT to survive for another century.
In 2014, The IoM launched a study to determine the feasibility of a global Isle of Man TT World Series. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, however, the TT itself will evolve. The IoM government, which has promoted the TT since it began in 1907, seeks to cushion itself from the expense, risk, and involvement needed to run the meet. Imagine if the U.S. Congress was in charge of the Indy 500, and you get the drift.
Earlier this year, London-based sports promotion and sponsorship company Vision Nine was hired to manage the commercial aspects of the TT starting in 2017. They have ambitious plans to invest in the event, and attract tens of thousands of new visitors, while upgrading the spectator, television and sponsor experiences across the board.
It is likely that some of the elements that make the TT so intimate and folksy will be lost as commercialization increases. But I can’t imagine a world without the TT, and if modest changes endow it to survive and thrive, I say Godspeed, Vision Nine.
Just don’t charge me to sit on that hedge at the bottom of Barregarrow. More to come over the next two weeks.